Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Lost in translation: How errors slip into professional VN releases

Translation errors in English releases often go undetected. Join me as I investigate how such errors arise and how they affect the experience.

As a prelude to my full review, I'm first tackling translation errors in Seinarukana (now available from J-List) and using it as a case study that should be applicable to visual novel translations in general.  Seinarukana was translated by well-known fan translator Aroduc of Seiha (MCS in the credits).  The translation was edited by DxS and Tolrin.  DxS also worked on Fruit of Grisaia, the translation of which has received high praise in the VN community.  Makoto, the highly-respected translator of Song of Saya, supposedly reviewed the translation as well (though he's not listed in the credits).  As such, this is a translation that most would expect to be above-average.

The translation is good overall, but translation accuracy suffers from occasional lapses in quality control.  In a work as long as this, that is somewhat to be expected.  The English script clearly received thorough proofreading and revision.  However, clear translation errors made it into the final script.  Some of these errors affect important scenes.  Unfortunately, such quality control issues are likely rampant in professional visual novel translations, and simply go undetected (after all, why would those competent in Japanese be playing English visual novels?).  And indeed, I noted similar issues in JAST's release of Shiny Days.  JAST's Flowers demo also attracted harsh scrutiny from others in the fanbase (JAST has since promised to have the entire script translation checked).  But to be clear: I don't think this is purely a JAST problem.  Low profit margins and low wages in the visual novel localization industry inevitably result in corners being cut.

The translation drops honorifics, which upset a few users.  But what I'm listing here are generally errors, not simple disagreements in translation style.

Most of the errors I identified were errors of disambiguation: careless mistakes resulting from the translator losing track of the flow of conversation.  Disambiguation errors are likely fairly common in visual novel translations.  If the translator isn't playing the game while translating, they're missing context (images and tone of voice of the speakers), and these sorts of errors are bound to result.

Below is a collection of my criticisms of specific passages, which illustrate the various types of translation errors that you might expect in a typical visual novel translation.  I list the original Japanese (transcribed from listening to the voices), then the official translation, and finally my own.  Note that the transcription is likely to be imperfect; as I'm not fluent I had to replay the audio many many times to try and capture every word accurately, and then I painstakingly converted the romaji to kanji while checking against dictionaries.  I report here most of the errors I found, but this is not necessarily a comprehensive report since I didn't have access to the original Japanese script, nor have I achieved the necessary language mastery to consistently identify errors (as a professional translation checker comparing the scripts side-by-side could).  Since I used Japanese voices as my sole reference, I was only able to assess translation errors in dialogue.  A few of the passages involve minor spoilers, so I included them in a separate spoilers section.  In one passage, I left a comment of mine that could be considered a spoiler in white text (highlight to see it).

Comment format:

Speaker (when applicable): Original Japanese
JAST's official English translation
My translation
Screenshot showing the context in the game message log

The first translation error I spotted was around 9 hours in (just past the first mission).  It's a fairly typical error of disambiguation.

Reime: 年は砂月と変わらんだろう。神剣がなくば、何の力持たないただの小娘。
Satsuki will likely never change.  She is just a helpless girl without the power of her Eternity Sword.
Katima is probably no older than Satsuki.  Without her Eternity Sword, she's just a powerless young girl.

The previous few sentences make it clear that Reime is talking about Katima:

And another error in the same conversation.  The translator probably understood the meaning, but he (or the editor) corrupted the meaning while attempting to rewrite the sentence in English.

Reime: 希美、なれるならもうとっくになってる。国民だって、それを望んでるだろう。
Nozomi, if she could, she already would have.  The people must wish for it as well.
Nozomi, if she could, she already would have.  I'm sure the people [of Aigia] would rather she rule too.

While seemingly small, this error distorts the reasoning behind the course of events.  The rules of succession are important because monarchies depend on these rules to prevent chaos.  The will of the people is secondary here.  Nozomi doesn't understand this--she's naive, especially when compared with Katima who is mature beyond her years.

I saw some occasions where the voice is a giveaway to the correct interpretation of a line, but the translation misses it--likely because the translator was working from a script.

Talia: あなたが理解してないなんてどういうこと?
What exactly do you not understand?
What do you mean you don't understand?![You're supposed to know this already!]

Talia isn't asking him to clarify.  She's incredulous / picking on him (as usual).  That's why Sol brushes her comment aside and asks Satsuki to continue.

JAST had a big problem with this in Shiny Days, where the much of the information content to disambiguate a line was contained in the video and the translation missed it entirely, resulting in a script littered with translation errors.  Thankfully these errors are uncommon in Seinarukana's script, but we can still glimpse how the translation process for VNs is less than ideal.  VNs are not books, and translation from a script will inevitably miss some of the context.

I noticed a pattern of frequently shortened sentences and occasional distortions of meaning.  I get the impression that that the translator felt compelled to fit lines into one textbox, and truncated or summarized lines as necessary to achieve this.   As a result, we sometimes see conversations that flow unnaturally and remarks that seem out of place.

On at least one occasion, this line shortening caused a major issue.  At the start of Ch. 3, we have a long explanation of the metaphysics of dimensional travel.  Part of it is included below.

Notice how the explanation is nonsensical.  That's a translation issue.  The first line is more or less correct.  The second line makes no attempt to disambiguate the line ("them"), adding confusion.  Satsuki is talking about relative coordinates here and how mapping from one's current position to where one wants to go is pretty difficult.  A part of the line is truncated that explains that.  In the third line, the first phrase is describing relative coordinates, while the second phrase is describing absolute coordinates.  The translation above conflates the two, completely borking the explanation.

The whole point here is that relative coordinates are imperfect and absolute coordinates are difficult to measure.  Readers of the English version will probably come out of this explanation thinking it's a bunch of nonsense, which is unfortunate because these are real issues one would face if one was trying to, say, teleport from Pluto to Earth.  It's not good enough just to know where on Earth the location is.  You have to know where Earth is too!  This explanation provides the context for the dimension traveling that occurs throughout the story, so the poor translation here has far-reaching consequences on reader immersion and the believability of the setting.

This line is part of the scene introducing Ruptuna and the Elder.  We see here how word choice can completely change the tone of a statement, affecting our first impression of the character.

Elder Ngi: はああ。問題を増やさなければいいんだが…
*sigh* You're just adding to the problems.
*sigh* A raging gale is as likely to spread a fire as quench it...

He's using an indirect expression (literally "I just hope the problems don't increase").  The official translation has a passive-aggressive feel to it, which just isn't appropriate.

Another mistake that mischaracterizes the poor Elder.

Elder Ngi: 放っておけ。奴らには何も出来ぬ。絶対にな。
Ignore them.  Do nothing to them.  Absolutely nothing.
Let them be.  We can't do anything about them.  Anything at all.

The Elder is expressing resignation, not bossing Ruptuna around.  This is clear from context, as well as the grammar.  If he were giving Ruputna a command, he would've used the imperative.  Combined with the previous error, the translation is depicting the Elder as irritable and bossy, which is utterly false.  He's like the soft-spoken parent to a teen going through her rebellious phase.

We see below how word choice can completely change the delivery of a line.

Elder Ngi: ん、良く知っておるな。
Mm.  You're quite intelligent.
Mm.  You're well-informed.

Knowledge and intelligence are not equivalent.  "You're quite intelligent" would be a very odd thing to say in this context--almost like a pickup line.

A scene from the end of Ch. 3 that shows how important information is just dropped from the line.

Sorluska: 望むたちが戦力にならないとでも言うのか。何処かの誰かさんよりはよっぽど戦力になっているだろう。
You're saying they're not going to fight for us? It's not like we're just going to trip over anybody stronger than them.
Are you saying Nozomu and the others won't be useful as fighters?  They're a lot more useful than someone I know [Salles]...

Note how Thalia responds with an insult because Sol insulted the guy she has a crush on (Salles).  Without that context, her insult seems to come out of nowhere.  My guess is that the translator didn't understand the reference and just dropped it.

I didn't notice any further errors worth noting until the start of Ch. 5, where I spotted another disambiguation error.

Jatzieta: ん、という事で。二人きりになっちゃうけど、レーメちゃんもいるんだし。本当に手を出しちゃったり駄目よ。
Okay.  That means it's just the two of you, although Reime's here too.  Absolutely no getting into fights, okay?
So that means it'll be just the two of you [Nozomu and Euphoria], although Reime's here too.  Don't get any weird ideas, okay? [lit: "Don't lay your hands on her" with a sexual connotation]

"Te wo dasu" can indicate violence or a sexual advance, depending on context.  Jatzieta is clearly making a loli joke here, which is consistent with her love for sexual innuendo in general.  Amusingly enough, the gag continues when Jatzieta returns, and the translation is correct there.

Much later in Ch. 8:

Narukana (reading a letter from Nozomi): 「今は焦らないで、望ちゃんは自分のことだけを考えて。私の事は気にしなくっていいから。」
"Don't get all flustered and selfish now. You don't need to worry about me."
"For now, stay cool-headed and think about yourself first.  You don't need to worry about me.  I'll be fine."

The translator mixed up Nozomi's message to "think of yourself first" with "you're being selfish".  A typical disambiguation error, and this time it really throws off the message.  My guess is that the translator thought that Narukana was "speaking" rather than Nozomi.  Oops.

From Ch. 10, another disambiguation error that changes the meaning of the sentence.

Salles: ああ、まずい!逃がすな!
Ah! Oh no! Get away!
Damn, don't let her get away!

Here we see the same error as above: Mixing up "na" as affirmation vs. as a negative (machine translators also have trouble with this).

Salles: 希望的観測に過ぎないだな。
It's not just wishful thinking.
Though it's no more than optimistic conjecture.

Salles is a scholar, and he knows better than to show false confidence.  Euphoria has no such qualms.

I've included passages containing minor spoilers in a separate spoiler section.  These are the most egregious errors since they impact important scenes.  I'd recommend taking a look even if you haven't played the game and are intending to, as you won't be all that surprised that certain heroines have routes and that certain minor characters have romantic interactions.

That's all for now.  I should have the full review up in a few days.  I just finished subtitling the PSP trailer for it.

If you appreciate the work I put into this post (and trust me, this was pretty grueling work, especially for an amateur), you can support me by clicking the link and buying something from J-List or following me on Twitter.

Update 7/14/16: JAST USA responded with the following comment.
We'll be addressing some of these issues as the game is prepared for Steam, and a patch will be released for the non-steam version.

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